Sunday 10 August ~
Welcome to a new domestic season, where the latest news concerns the possible move of a Russian to Tottenham and a Brazilian from Spain to Chelsea, while payment of the largest fee for an English player this summer appears hamstrung by the global credit squeeze and may end with Liverpool’s ownership shifting from the US to Dubai. So much for domesticity.
Football has long boasted that its international appeal sets it apart from all other sports. Amid Olympics hysteria, it politely points out that the World Cup draws much bigger TV audiences. It looks down its nose at the mismatches and shallow talent pools of the rugby union and cricket world cups. While one corner of the football world was focused intently on Derby v Doncaster or Hartlepool v Colchester yesterday, another might have been taking in New Zealand v Norway or Brazil v North Korea in the women’s Olympic tournament. What could be healthier for the game than its undeniable global reach?
Well, some kind of control over its club competitions perhaps. Contrast the open-door Premier League with more or less closed leagues in other sports, such as the NFL in gridiron or the AFL in Australian rules. They have almost no flow of either players or money from or to other countries. As a result they can maintain systems such as the salary cap and the draft, which may seem grossly unfair industrial restrictions to European eyes, but have the merit of keeping the competitions even and unpredictable.
Any attempt to introduce similar restraints in European football leagues (including FIFA’s proposed limit on foreign players) will be doomed, partly because of European Union laws on freedom of movement and contract, but mostly because the amount of money swilling around in football, and the volume of players available, make them impossible to enforce.
Australian rugby league is currently outraged over the defection of one of its best players, Sonny Bill Williams, to the French rugby union club Toulon, who are backed by the wealth of the comic-book mogul Mourad Boudjellal. The case of Williams, who broke his contract to earn far more than he could with the salary-cap controlled Canterbury Bulldogs, is a miniature example of what would happen with any football league that tried to limit what its players could earn, or what country they could play in.
No one wants to go back to the maximum wage and retain-and-transfer systems of English football that ended in the 1960s. On the other hand, the coming Premier League season would look a lot more interesting if the financial disparities between the top and bottom clubs didn’t make it such a grotesquely lopsided contest. Hull v Chelsea? You’d be better off watching Australian rules.